Time for Soul Searching

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BaltimoreAfter a night of violence and destruction in Baltimore following the funeral services of Freddie Gray, the numbers tell part of the crisis—200 arrests, 144 vehicles burned, many of them police cars, 19 police officers injured, one seriously, and 15 buildings torched.  (Thus far no fatalities.)

But there are other numbers even more compelling in explaining the eruption—25 percent of Baltimore residents live below the poverty line and at the vortex of yesterday’s disturbance, nearly 20 percent are unemployed. 

These are the general statistics and they are even more glaring when applied to the youth in the neighborhood that went up in flames where the jobless rate could be as high a 50 percent.

All things considered this is a desperately impoverish community that resembles the most distressed Third World nation.  Here you have all the ingredients for civic upheaval, a combustible situation that has been exacerbated by wanton police misconduct.

Interrupting his scheduled press conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan on Tuesday afternoon, President Obama took some questions from the press.  “They’re not protesting, they’re not making a statement, they’re stealing,” Obama said of the burning and looting that ravaged Baltimore.  “They’re destroying and undermining businesses and opportunities in their own communities that rob jobs and opportunity from people in that area.”

None of this is new, the president added, and “We as a country have to do some soul searching.  This is not new.  It’s been going on for decades.”

What’s been going for decades is the rampant police violence that has come to a blistering head with the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson; Eric Garner in Staten Island; Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina; and Eric Harris in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Most of the soul searching has to begin in the local police departments around the nation where there are apparently far too many officers in and out of uniform who are quick to draw their guns and pull the trigger, particularly when the target in an unnamed Black man.

Ironically, Loretta Lynch was sworn in on Monday as the nation’s top law enforcement officer and the hot item on her plate is still simmering in Baltimore where Governor Larry Hogan has summoned the National Guard and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has established a 10pm to 5am curfew.

The Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have joined a number of community leaders with an aim toward tamping down the dissent that President Obama has termed a distraction that has dampened the righteous outrage and peaceful protests.

After smoothing the relations between the police and the community, which is no easy task, an even harder one is providing jobs for the thousands of unemployed youth in the city, particularly the young African Americans mired in poverty.

This mission is compounded by a staggeringly low high school graduation rate in Baltimore, which at under 60 percent is the worst in the state of Maryland.

The flames and anger that raged in Baltimore is just an accumulation of the growing frustration of youths who see nothing but hopelessness on the horizon.   A momentary opportunity to salvage goods from a vandalized store is instant gratification but not the answer to long term poverty and oppression.

Ever since the Kerner Commission report in the late sixties sociologists, urban planners and civic leaders have been grappling with this problem, struggling to find solutions.

It may be something that is irresolvable, short of a dramatic systemic change, and part of it rests with curbing and changing the behavior of the police in the country.  In too many instances they are the catalyst that incite or ignite the explosive powder keg of misery.  What Attorney General Holder set in motion in terms of issuing consent decrees to malignant police departments is something Attorney General Lynch must keep in place and possibly extend.

Yes, there is soul searching to be done and not a soul is exempt from the process, especially those police who are hired to protest us, not kill us.